Empowering Educators and Transforming Higher Education: A Roadmap to Learning in an AI Era

A peek into a typical workday: AI and thereafter

My workday begins at 8 am. I am seated at my desk, studying 2 screens my artificial intelligence (AI) powered assistant “Ripley” has tabulated and projected before me. Ripley is one among the several personalized AI aides available to everybody via neural implants, assisting us in both our personal lives and careers akin to the smartphone of yesteryears. The first screen shows 30 young faces along with their names and backgrounds. Adjacent to each face is a variety of data, most of it in the form of metrics and graphs. I carefully scan this information, which gives me insight into the academic history of each student of the undergraduate classroom in mechanical engineering I will be teaching in the next one hour. Ripley also runs me through collective data pertaining to the knowledge background, motivational levels and familiarity of the class regarding the contents of the lesson. The interface is easy to use, and I skim through the contents asking Ripley to provide more details whenever necessary. The second screen furnishes me with aims, learning outcomes, activities and assessments on the topic to be taught i.e. 3-D printing. These were generated by Ripley via machine learning algorithms corresponding to the information gathered in the first screen, and further tapping into big data available on the course from classrooms around the world. Before moving to the smart classroom1 I make some minor modifications on the lesson plan, which Ripley seamlessly communicates to the students’ AI assistants.

Once the students are seated, I begin the class by getting them to introduce themselves and going through the lesson plan. Those who cannot attend class physically join as remote participants via holoportation2, a virtual teleportation technology which enables full 3-dimensional telepresence. As the class progresses, I deploy AI enabled Augmented Reality3 interfaces to showcase several types of 3-D printers in real time. This helps students visualize their working principles as if they were in an actual workshop, the graphics near realistic, being generated by deep learning algorithms. In addition, students can manipulate and interact with the environment seamlessly via Ambient intelligence (AmI)4 systems. Assessments and task-oriented learning scenarios are simulated using Virtual Reality (VR), which enables students to design and manufacture components on virtual 3-D printers, and then validate its usage in an AI generated environment. My role during this time is to help facilitate learning by helping them explore and learn at their own pace, making use of the technology available at their disposal. I move around the classroom clarifying doubts, getting them to collaborate with one another and encouraging them to exercise their creativity in solving problems posed to them by their intelligent assistants. This is how I envision my typical workday to pan out, as a teacher of mechanical engineering in an era propelled by advancements in artificial intelligence and its progeny.

The changing face of higher education: en route to an AI era

Higher education in engineering and most other disciplines relies on an age-old knowledge-intensive approach, which rests on the foundations of rote learning and conformity. This has resulted in the mass-production of graduates lacking in vital attributes such as critical thinking, problem solving and decision making. Even though present-day education is aided by a variety of technological advancements ranging from computers to the World Wide Web, university graduates remain woefully short of skills necessary to succeed in the real world5. Needless to say, this necessitates significant transformations in the prevailing education system and its deliverers, especially if we are to remain “relevant” moving into an era dominated by machines and technology. Now, there are a few key questions which we must ask ourselves before formulating or attempting to establish reforms. Firstly, what are the principal attributes required in a workforce hired during a time when AI becomes ubiquitous? Secondly, what are the challenges faced by educators today in bringing about the changes necessary to build these skills? Finally, how can educators address these challenges and continue to do so in the future, without being replaced by AI themselves? I would like to examine the first two questions in this section of the essay and dedicate the last section to scrutinizing the final one.

With rapid advances being made in AI research as well as its growing ability to tackle tremendous quantities of information, graduates will no longer be hired based on the knowledge they possess, but their ability to apply this knowledge in solving complex problems6. Knowledge per se will be rendered useless in the future employee. To remain competitive in a world overshadowed by AI, humanity will need to train itself to perform “non-routine creative work” as opposed to “routine knowledge-based work”6. Artificial neural-network based AI systems have already mastered and replaced humans in a variety of specialized tasks in sectors including financial trading, transportation and healthcare diagnostics to name a few7. It is only a matter of time before they eliminate all repetitive task jobs, with automation substituting for manual labor in these cases8. Nevertheless, on the positive side, such an era is also believed to create a whole new sub-set of jobs and problems, comparable to that of a second industrial revolution9. These jobs engendered by AI and its sister technologies will require complex cognitive skills such as problem solving, innovation, creativity, workplace collaboration, self-direction etc.

Before we look into the process of building said skills, it is important that we are also aware of the key challenges currently faced by educators in administering their duties. Teaching is one among the most overworked and underpaid careers of today, with high attrition rates, demanding workloads as well as poor work-life balance10,11. Teachers face a plethora of challenges when carrying out their tasks such as lack of sufficient time, lack of student engagement, lack of funds and resources, inadequate training etc. The current system forces them to be more concerned about covering the curriculum, when they should in fact be focusing on achieving the learning outcomes of the lesson. Consequently, they adopt a vapid lecture-based approach for imparting knowledge to students, which rarely allows for interaction and at the same time is boring12 thanks to the enormous amounts of information doled out in short periods of time. Another key issue is the dearth of training given to teachers in adapting themselves to the changing needs of time, both in terms of engaging students as well as harnessing technology to promote deeper learning and better retention levels. Next, there exists a disparity in the distribution of learning resources among students, which prevents educators from achieving equal educational outcomes. This is a consequence of the inequities existing among the different communities in terms of gender bias, social class and economic status. Only a privileged few can afford or have access to technology, facilities, qualified and experienced teachers necessary for a well-rounded education, thus giving rise to educational inequality and elitism13.

Educators are further handicapped by the diverse learning styles of students and as a result, deploy teaching techniques which are general in nature, assuming that it caters to the majority. Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most illustrious figures in education today, has stressed on the need for more personalization and less standardization in learning14. Standardization in education has worked well in the 20th century where most jobs have required graduates to specialize in narrow domains, rarely needing them to think out of the box. It has further influenced teachers and management in their approach to education, creating a culture where traits like innovation and creativity are almost non-existent. On the contrary, the 21st century calls for an education system which goes beyond mere dissemination of knowledge; it calls for a system which empowers its products to remain productive and evolve into successful individuals once they step outside its portals.

The way forward for educators: what will it take?

Now, how do we ensure this idea of an efficacious education system is made tangible going forward into an AI era– or to be more precise, what efforts will it take to realize this goal of building a relevant skill set in every student, irrespective of their socioeconomic status or academic discipline? I argue that the answer to these questions rests on remolding the three fundamental aspects of educational delivery: the “what” is delivered, the “who” delivers and the “how” to deliver.

The “what” and the “how” for the most part depends on the skillset to be forged into the workforce. At this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting held at Davos, several leaders including Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group emphasized the importance of soft skills like independent thinking, values and team-work to stay competent in a future where all routine work is automated via AI15. For this to materialize, the current knowledge-intensive approach to education must be overhauled and in its place, a problem-based learning platform16 must be instituted into the curriculum. The principle of this approach is to allow students to learn and understand concepts by solving open-ended real-world problems in collaborative groups. In essence, the curriculum is designed so as to “nurture” creativity, not “smother” it. Several universities including Stanford and St. Gallen have already implemented this approach in the form of courses such as Design Thinking, where industrial partners put forward problems in class, which students then attempt to resolve guided by their professors in a highly engaged manner over long periods of time6. This fosters active learning among students, allowing them to assume responsibility in the learning process, and providing them with opportunities to exercise their creative skills while working together as a team. Moreover, this helps them gain a broader picture of the problem, which is important to help them function as effective leaders and managers who can look beyond their own specific domains in an industry or organization.

AI powered technologies can further be harnessed to augment the “how” to deliver aspect in several inventive ways. For example, if the class was on 3-D printing, AI powered augmented-reality (AR) interfaces could be utilized to simulate virtual printers, which students can then utilize to print out virtual models of the components in real time. Such a virtual set-up gives them the freedom to make mistakes and rework their solutions, as there is no material cost or waste involved. In addition, this allows students to attain higher levels of learning as they learn concepts in a setting closely resembling their future context, which in this case is a 3-D printing firm. Assessments can be done on the fly, with AI assistants being harnessed to provide every student with immediate feedback. AI powered Virtual Reality (VR) interfaces on the other hand can be used to simulate customized field trips making it possible for each student to have a personalized learning experience. These are typical examples of an adaptive learning system where data collected on students’ performance can then be leveraged by AI to provide learning content tailored for each of them17.

The “who” delivers includes educators, administrators and policymakers, on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of bringing about the educational reforms necessary for preparing humanity to stay competent in an AI era. I believe that the initial target to transformation at any level of education should be the educators themselves. Adequate training should be given to both existing and future educators to implement the revamped competency-based curriculum and harness the technological advances to promote deeper learning among students. It is vital that as teachers, we do not end up competing with AI systems like “Ripley” for imparting education; instead we should focus on using such intelligence assistants as enablers in helping students achieve the learning outcomes, and in delivering an enjoyable and stimulating learning experience. For us educators to stay ahead of AI, we must learn to cultivate social and emotional skills in engaging students, as this is what differentiates us from the former. We must redefine our traditional role of solely being a deliverer of knowledge, to that of an empathetic and effective facilitator of the learning process18. In addition, funds must be directed to make educational technology affordable and accessible to all irrespective of their backgrounds, so that going forward we do not end up recreating an automated version of the existing inequities in education.

In conclusion, I firmly believe that the influence of AI on education is inevitable; and only by embracing the former can we steer it towards rising to a new level of empowerment and ephemeralization19 in any discipline, be it engineering or otherwise.

References

  1. Alelaiwi, A. et al. Enhanced engineering education using smart class environment. Comput. Human Behav. 51, 852–856 (2015).
  2. Fanello, S. et al. Holoportation : Virtual 3D Teleportation in Real-time. Chi 741–754 (2016). doi:10.1145/2984511.2984517
  3. Billinghurst, M. Augmented Reality and Education. New Horizons Learn. 21(3) 195-209 (2002). doi:10.4018/jgcms.2011010108
  4. Remagnino, P. & Foresti, G. L. Ambient intelligence: A new multidisciplinary paradigm. IEEE Trans. Syst. Man, Cybern. Part ASystems Humans. 35, 1–6 (2005).
  5. Nair, C. S., Patil, A. & Mertova, P. Re-engineering graduate skills – a case study. Eur. J. Eng. Educ. 34, 131–139 (2009).
  6. Bernhard Schindlholzer. Artificial intelligence & the future of education systems | Bernhard Schindlholzer | TEDxFHKufstein – YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdHhs-I9FVo. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  7. Tegmark, M. Life 3.0 : being human in the age of artificial intelligence.
  8. Frey, C. & Osborne, M. The future of emplyment: how susceptible are jobs to computerization? Sept 1–72 (2013). doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2016.08.019
  9. Kevin Kelly: How AI can bring on a second Industrial Revolution | TED Talk | TED.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_kelly_how_ai_can_bring_on_a_second_industrial_revolution. (Accessed: 27th January 2018)
  10. Teachers are overworked but still dedicated, new survey suggests | Teacher Network | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/mar/12/teachers-overworked-undervalued-education-survey. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  11. 60-hour weeks and unrealistic targets: teachers’ working lives uncovered | Teacher Network | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/datablog/2016/mar/22/60-hour-weeks-and-unrealistic-targets-teachers-working-lives-uncovered. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  12. Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring? | Education | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2009/may/12/university-teaching. (Accessed: 28th January 2018)
  13. Educational inequality still an obstacle to talented students, Letters in Print News & Top Stories – The Straits Times. Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-in-print/educational-inequality-still-an-obstacle-to-talented-students. (Accessed: 28th January 2018)
  14. Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! | TED Talk | TED.com. Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution. (Accessed: 26th January 2018)
  15. 6 quotes from Davos on the future of education | World Economic Forum. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/top-quotes-from-davos-on-the-future-of-education/. (Accessed: 30th January 2018)
  16. Schmidt, H. G., Rotgans, J. I. & Yew, E. H. J. The process of problem-based learning: what works and why. Med. Educ. 45, 792–806 (2011).
  17. Three ways education is being disrupted by digital technology. Available at: https://www.digitalpulse.pwc.com.au/three-ways-education-disruption-digital-technology/. (Accessed: 31st January 2018)
  18. These 7 trends are shaping personalized learning | Education Dive. Available at: https://www.educationdive.com/news/these-7-trends-are-shaping-personalized-learning/434575/. (Accessed: 1st February 2018)
  19. Ephemeralization – Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ephemeralization. (Accessed: 1st February 2018)

 

Taking a tune back in time

They say music is as balm to the soul, soothing and healing those wounded places hidden away in the deep recesses of one’s mind, and for a while alleviating the bitterness festering within. They say music stokes the fire of desire, bringing lovers together, minds resonating with one another, to places, feelings and emotions shared in times past. They also say music uplifts our souls to planes devoid of language and logic, teasing the senses with fleeting glimpses into a world of eternal tranquility, and if you’re lucky, into the timeless dance of creation itself. The first picture that comes to mind when I think of the bliss that is music, is from Shawshank, Andy Dufresne lounging in the warden’s chair, listening to Mozart, eyes glazed and for a few moments transported into a place nobody can enter or disturb. I really don’t think Tim Robbins play-acted this particular scene, if he did he’s a bloody marvel!

In my case and as probably is for most of you, the tunes I’ve listened to have constantly changed with the passing of time. Most stuff you listen to as a little kid are those which you have no choice or control over. At that stage, the realms of tune and melody are still new, still pristine, you take everything that is given to you with a sense of wonder, unbiased and without judgement. This is the phase of music you probably cannot relate to among your peers in the years to come; this is the time of songs that will take you back to the earliest memories of yourself, hazy and poignant.

The songs I recall from these early periods of my life are mostly from Malayalam movies, played over and over at my grandparents place, and a few Kannada songs in turn at our home in Coorg, thanks to Doordarshan. Next, came an entire generation of Tamil songs by the immortal Rahman, mostly heard on car stereos while I was traveling around during term end vacations. Those days of prancing around to Muqabla muqabla, trying my best to impersonate Prabhudeva are still etched so vividly in my mind. I never stayed with my parents during summer breaks as far back as I can remember, and those were perhaps some of the best times of my boyhood, always being packed off to some relative’s place or the other, a welcome hiatus from the music my parents usually played.

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Faces I grew up listening to!

As the years moved on from tape-recorders and Walkmans to CD-players and MP3 Players, my favourite artistes changed as well, following the patterns of wannabe teenage gawkiness to the listlessness and indifference favoured among most youth in college. Those years spent in hostel, a multicultural melting pot in itself, exposed me to a vast assortment of music, allowing me to pick and listen to several genres, finally leading to the development of specificity in terms of taste (oh, the agony of choice, it felt like entering a supermarket for the first time in my life). It was also here, that I saw and accumulated the biggest collection of movies that could be desired, oh yes! Name it and I had it! This in turn culminated in my gathering some of the best movie soundtracks (OSTs) composed until then. I had one for every occasion, be it going to the gym, running, sitting in the bus, hiking, assignments, unrequited love, depression, loneliness, joblessness and so the list goes on and on (I am pretty sure most of us did and still do this, you should see the names of some of the playlists we carried around at the time!). The working out/pre-exam music almost always began with “Eye of the tiger” by Survivor, tracks from Rocky were absolutely mandatory when doing push-ups or weights. I still hear our rooms echoing to the trademark numbers of Maiden, Metallica, AC/DC, Floyd, Zeppelin, even Rammstein at times when things got really hairy. I’ve lost track of the number of times the tunes from Kevin Bacon’s Footloose and Quicksilver have helped me in running circles around the football ground. When I listen to these songs today, it feels like a part of me is suddenly transported back into the past, to a specific location I’ve associated with the tune and for those few moments, I end up looking like Tim Robbins did in the Prison warden’s office (oh well, on second thoughts maybe not as cool as him!).

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Movies and OSTs!

For some reason, after my undergraduate years, my taste in music seemed to progress in reverse chronological order. When my peers were listening to the likes of Adele, Rihanna, Pitbull, Sheeran and so on (okay, so that’s as far as my knowledge goes), I moved back in time to the 70s and 80s, mostly listening to the likes of Hall and Oates, The Outfield, Beegees, China Crisis, Springsteen, Men at Work, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Toto etc., Sometimes, I even wonder if I arrived in this world a couple of decades late, but I won’t complain, oh no – all I need do is mention the word ‘Youtube’ and my gripes just vanish, whoosh! I really needn’t go into how accessible music is these days, right?

Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower have brought many old tracks back to life in the recent past (thanks to remastered versions), I mean come on! – who doesn’t want to listen to stuff like  ‘Hooked on a feeling’, ‘Brandy’ or ‘Come on Eileen’ ? Oh, I could rave about the charms of rock ballads and old man voices all day long! Okay, I think I leave you with that for now, and if you’re wondering why a sudden post (more like a ramble) about music, I’ll just say I found a love song from 1979 which I just can’t stop listening to at the moment (yeah yeah,  go on, think what you will!).

Cheers!

 

Rinjani : An anthology of landscapes

For those of you who don’t know, Rinjani is an active volcano in Lombok, an island not far from Bali. It’s the second highest volcano in Indonesia, standing at 3726m and very popular among trekking enthusiasts this side of the world. Enough with statistics now and moving on to more about how we ended up climbing the dude. K and I had this mountain on our trekking list for a while, and when two other friends agreed to join us, we gave it the green signal. The trek alone requires 3 days, while the travel to and from Lombok takes another 2 meaning you’ll need to plan the whole thing in advance, especially if you want to spend time sight-seeing in Lombok/Gili. A pal who had done the mountain before referred me to Adi Trekker, whom they had hired for their climb. I contacted Adi via mail, who promptly provided all the necessary details, which you’ll find here.  The full package costed us 250 USD per head.

We flew via KL, which is usually cheaper compared to changing at Bali and arrived at Lombok about 4 pm. Now, I’ve never had anyone holding a placard with my name at an airport before, so that was a memorable sight (but yeah, there were many such placards and I was busy finding my guy, so couldn’t really take a snap!!). The weather was just right, a cool breeze greeting us as we stepped off the airport exit gates onto the tarmac.  Our guy whisked us off to a car, which was to take us to our hotel for the night, almost 100 kms away and located at the foot of Rinjani.

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That’s us at the airport, minus the bags and plus the trekking shoes

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K proudly showing off his SJ5000

We had dinner on the way, and were then taken to Adi’s office to settle the bills as well as the briefing on the climb. After a friendly chat, we got back into the car and finally arrived at our hotel, Rinjani Lighthouse about 9 pm. The rooms were spacious, but unfortunately not sound proof. We didn’t sleep well thanks to some idiotic neighbors, staying above our room. God knows what they were up to at 1 in the morning, making all that bloody noise. Anyway, we were up early, had pancakes with some gritty Lombok coffee (I do not recommend this to those who like their coffee filtered) for breakfast, and then got the customary pre-trek “good to go” snap taken! That’s Rinjani you see in the background above us.

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At Rinjani Lighthouse post breakfast

Our climb commenced at Sembalun village about 8, we were to reach the crater rim by late noon. And now it’s time to introduce the “supermen” who carry our food, tents, mattresses and all other requisite provisions for the next 3 days -“The Rinjani porters”! These guys actually make use of a bamboo pole, onto which they secure all the luggage (yes, it’s as heavy as it looks) and then balance it on their shoulders as they walk, not to mention the fact that they make the climb look like a stroll on the beach (yes, they wear slippers!). “They usually start climbing when they are 15 and continue to do this for the next 30 years, making at least 2 trips every week for most part of the year”, said Awenk, our guide when I asked him about them. “We don’t have many options here and have to do this if we are to feed our families sir“, he added on noticing our surprise at their choice of livelihood. We certainly didn’t need our brains to figure out these guys were spending a significant chunk of their lives on a mountain, away from their families and the basic comforts of life.

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The ironmen of Rinjani!

The first part of the trek was relatively easy, comprised mainly of walking along a pre-defined path amidst fields and grasslands. I’ll let the pictures do the talking as far as the landscape is concerned (please click on them to enlarge).

As soon as we arrived at the lunch spot, the porters got down to business. We were soon seated on chairs (they actually carried chairs for us!) under a tent shelter and helped ourselves to a choice of drinks, and watched them set the cooking gear into motion.

Now when it came to meals, I believe these guys would give our mothers a run for their money. I mean who cuts pineapples into such intricate shapes, that too on a bloody trek! Gosh, the variety of stuff they served us was just fucking incredible, a dish never being repeated during the trek. Each portion could probably have fed two of us, and we had to request them to cut down this amount for subsequent repasts. We continued on our way once we were done eating and lo and behold, the rain gods conspired to present us with their greetings. Well, that was that! The beginning of 3 irritating hours of hauling our bedraggled selves up the mountain, none of us being prepared for bad weather at that!(Please carry rain coats even if it’s the hot season, mountains are unpredictable when it comes to weather).

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When it rains on the mountain

We arrived at the crater rim on time and set up camp at a nice spot thanks to being one of the faster groups (yes, there are hundreds of people doing the climb). It was still drizzling, we couldn’t wait to get changed, but had to do it in turns as it took time to have the tents put up. Another sumptuous meal and we tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags chatting endlessly about the next day.

So then, did I MISS out something? Of course I did! I am sure you know what I am referring to. Yes, you’re right – “The toilet business”! How were we to engage in our requisite high altitude pooping? I mean, this is a necessary task and not something you can put off until you finish the trek, especially not when you’re being fed meal-portions that could probably satisfy a bear just out of hibernation. Well, without further ado, let me present to you “the Rinjani toilet tent”! An ingenious box like invention, with a zipper on one side, an orifice (not as big as you’d like) at the center and a non-existent roof. Now, we were four of us and yes, we definitely didn’t expect (okay, so this was me) the darned hole to be so tiny. I think I’ll leave it at that, and refrain from regaling you with further details on our surreptitious “headlamp assisted forays” into the black box at god knows what time in the night.

We were up at 2 the next morning, and started the summit climb after a quick snack (hot tea and toast, now that’s what I call being pampered!). Only our guide accompanied us this time around, the porters would remain at the crater rim since we were returning there later. I’d like to call this part the “chain of lights routine“. As you are climbing in the dark, all you can see are the flashlights deployed by people, both in front of and behind you. A continuously moving line of lights, giving you an eerie feeling like you’ve suddenly entered a fairytale! The terrain wasn’t particularly steep, but was slippery, and as Awenk mentioned “For every two steps you go up, you slide one back down”, which of course if super frustrating. Luckily, we’d left our luggage in the tents, and this did make a big difference during the climb, giving us our only chance to rest those oh so tired shoulders. We arrived at the summit nearing 6, and sat there waiting for the sun to show up (he did take his time). It was horribly cold, my shoes were wet from the previous day and I knew I had to keep moving to prevent my feet from going numb. Well, the sunrise was superb just as we’d expected, and more so, when you have its warmth coursing into your freezing body. We got some spectacular views of the crater lake Segara Anak as well as the surrounding landscape (over to the pictures now!)

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And the sun comes up!

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So here we are, that’s the crater lake in the background!

The descent involved skiing (well, kind of!), just that the snow is replaced by a combination of mud and gravel. I took some time alone on the way back, the sights so bloody picturesque now, with the sun in his place and the crisp mountain air, oh so invigorating! Ummm, I guess it’s an apt time and location to contemplate life you know (that is if you can keep yourself from contemplating the countless stones in your shoes)! On a serious note, I’d advise you to slow down at this point, put away the cameras and give yourselves  some alone-time. The scenery is truly humbling and perhaps if you are lucky enough, you JUST MIGHT get some perspective on your life.

Some more pics of the camp with the sun in all his glory, the mists had thankfully cleared!

So this was just the first part of the trek (yep, there’s more walking), the next bit involved going down all the way to the crater lake, which you can see in the picture and then climb all the way to the opposite side of the crater rim. Although this might seem both exhausting and pointless at the time, Rinjani is a veritable kaleidoscope of landscapes, and I would highly recommend finishing the full trek i.e. if you’d truly like to savour the full assortment of views the mountain has to offer. The descent involves boulder hopping for some distance, which is followed by a stroll amidst waist-high grass (some gladiator scenes happened at this point!).

Another few grueling hours later, we arrived at the other side of the crater and this was where we camped the second night. We could see both Bali and the Gili islands in the horizon, we were also warming up to our porters and guide, and had our dinner chatting with them about their lives on the mountain.

The way back to the finish line was less troublesome, I was mostly on my own listening to conversations of other trekkers. Most of the crowd was Caucasian, a big chunk of them hailing from Europe. I did run into a few guys from Singapore, but on the whole there were very few Asians doing Rinjani the same day as us. We completed the trek around 2 in the afternoon, and signed our names at the check-post located at the Senaru entrance.

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Our team of nine at the finishing point in Senaru

After we’d thanked our guide and porters at Adi’s office, we were transferred to our hotel Sunset House (a sunset was mandatory after two days of sunrises) in Senggigi for the night. A hot shower and a heavy meal later, we were strolling on the beach, revisiting some of the adventures we had over the last couple of days. You can imagine our relief at finally being able to walk on flat ground, after three days of doing gradients. My toes had blisters on the sides. I for one was glad to get out of those darned shoes and walk barefoot on the beach.

Some pointers/advice

So if you asked me how fit you really need to be to do the Rinjani 3D2N, I’d expect you to be somewhere above average. This isn’t the kind of mountain you could just about manage on a whim, unless you’re a regular climber. It’s a long long walk, and at certain points you’ll even wonder when the darn thing is going to end, but come on, that’s the whole point of a trek eh? What I mean is that a certain dosage of difficulty is necessary if you are expecting to gain a sense of accomplishment when you finish, no? At the same time, do not expect the mountain to be super clean, there are hundreds of people doing the climb daily, although the porters ensure that most of the garbage is carried down and disposed off, the camp sites still tend to be slightly dirty. And do carry loads of wet wipes to clean yourselves with, there are no shower facilities on the mountain (obviously, the rain doesn’t count here!).

I must also give full marks to my fellow mountaineers (K, Eldho and Ania) for their energy levels and enthusiasm throughout the trek, I did not catch a single complaint from any of them. Bravo, guys! It was good fun climbing with you, and hope to continue doing such awesome stuff together going forward. We would also like to thank Adi’s team i.e. our guide Awenk and our porters Kendelonk, Anto, Muh, Kati; you guys were just marvelous, we couldn’t possibly have been in better hands!

P.S.

How does Rinjani compare against Kinabalu? (since so many people asked)

Well, we did both the “summit trail” and the “via Ferrata” in Kinabalu, and I found this to be more physically challenging, especially since this mountain has certain steep sections where you make use of a rope to haul yourself up. On the contrary, if the full trek is taken into account, I believe Rinjani is harder, since you’ll be doing two sides of the crater in addition to the summit trail, as opposed to just the latter in Kinabalu. Like I mentioned before, Rinjani is a hell of a long walk, taking three full days to complete at a medium pace, as opposed to Kinabalu’s two even though the latter is the bigger mountain (Also keep in mind, there’s definitely more to see @Rinjani and more importantly, it’s way cheaper!).

Cheers!

Malazan Book of the Fallen: A Review

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Steven, you are a fucking genius! Firstly, for conceiving the astounding world of Malaz, secondly for bringing into life a host of characters who’ve helped me forget some of the hardest bits of my little life, and finally but most importantly for writing some of the epicest dialogues (that’s right, epicest!) and conversations I’ve ever come across in high fantasy or elsewhere. Now, I’ve never written a book review before, so let me break it down into a few questions and answers, telling you how I ended up reading around 10000 pages of pure delight.

How did I begin reading the tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen?

Oh well, it was one of those darned phases of uncertainty! I was going through the motions, and when all else fails, books are the sole recourse to solace. Pages and pages of undiluted vicarious pleasure! Although RJ’s “The Wheel of Time” helped some, it didn’t get me as involved as I’d have wanted to, enough to drown away all the worries and sorrows of the time. I needed another reading project, a massive one, that would both appeal to me and keep me occupied at least for the next few months. Steven’s first book of the Malazan series “Gardens of the Moon” had been nominated for a World fantasy award, it was a short one and seemed reasonable enough for a quick try. More importantly, his series was also finished unlike Martin’s “ASoIaF”, meaning no agonizing waits midway. A hundred or so pages into the book and I was hooked, Whiskeyjack & co (you’ll know who they are) had me ensnared, and I knew I was in for some of the best reading I’d ever done all thanks to Steven.

How is the storyline and the pace?

The storyline is vast and multifaceted, revolving for the most part around certain factions of the Malazan army (yes, this one is about soldiers!), and like most long-drawn-out epic fantasy plots brings into the fold an assortment of characters ranging from mages, assassins, gods, witches, priests, thieves to sailors etc., picked from races both human and otherwise. What really struck me is the colossal timeframe of the story, spanning over hundreds of thousands of years giving my rusty skills at imagination some much-needed polishing. I also liked the fact that there weren’t any singular protagonists (the usual good vs evil crap), thus drawing perspectives from several angles and giving me the freedom in choosing my own favourite characters. The story is well-paced until “The Bonehunters”, after which it kind of takes a detour during which Steven introduces a parallel world, slowing down quite a bit especially in “Toll the hounds”, and then picking up pace towards the last two books. Now, I must also tell you that Steven is quite the miser when it comes to revealing the grand scheme of things, he does throw a few hints here and there but it’s mostly up to you as the reader to put everything together. For someone like me, who doesn’t place much importance in the plot, this is acceptable, but if you’re a meticulous reader who doesn’t like loose ends to the story, it becomes quite the task in gleaning all the minute details, let alone making sense of it all!

How was the series and what stood out?

What really made this series for me was the dialogue! Like I mentioned before, unpredictable twists or roller coaster plots aren’t exactly my cup of tea (if there’s one, great! If not, that’s still okay). The narrative style deployed, the amount of character development involved and the little conversations which make up the story are what I look at in a book, the rest of the stuff is peripheral. Steven has taken into account all 3 areas, and is quite the maestro when it comes to delivering dazzling dialogue. He infuses the lines with repartee, be it humour or despair, be it in bed or in battle, be it a lizard or a dragon, and at the same time is at ease playing the role of the philosopher, imbuing the story with aspects from a plethora of world views including pantheism, nihilism, fatalism, and even stoicism to a certain extent. Some of the friendships he forges among the characters are real tear-jerker material and will remain etched in my heart, especially these ones (Quick Ben & Kalam, Gesler and Stormy, Fiddler and Hedge, Tool and Toc the younger, Onrack and Trull Sengar, Rallick, Coll and Murillio, Picker and Blend, Whiskeyjack and Dujek, Pores and Kindly….. gosh the list goes on and on).

Who are my favourite characters?

Now this is a tough one, but yeah, I have my favourites and I’d like to list the top five, who’ve had a substantial amount of character development as well as a point of view (mind you!).

  1. Fiddler
  2. Ganoes Paran
  3. Toc the younger
  4. Kalam Mekhar
  5. Duiker

I know what you’re probably thinking now! Agreed there are heavyweights like Anomander Rake, Dassem Ultor, Coltaine, Tavore, Whiskeyjack, Cotillion, Yedan “balls of steel” Derryg etc., who are all fucking awesome, but the fact remains that these characters do not have a point of view in the story. I am guessing Steven does this deliberately in order for the readers to hold them in awe, which is actually quite smart. I must further acknowledge that I am partial to the Malazans, which I am sure you’ve gathered on seeing my list but yeah, there are several other wonderful characters as well, for you to pick and choose as your heroes.

Final Word (8.5/10)

These tales of the Malazan book of the fallen are without doubt some of the best books I’ve read and I highly recommend them to all my fellow fantasy lovers and readers. There’s enough imagination, humour, battles, tragedies, friendships and betrayals to keep you engaged for a long time and that, at a reasonable pace too.

Now, for some of my favourite quotes (I’ll just pick 5 as I am sure I can keep going all day). Those of you who are planning to read the books can come back to this section once you’ve finished.

Quotes

“Wise words are like arrows flung at your forehead. What do you do? Why, you duck of course.”

‘Pust? Back in the temple, poring through the archives of the Book of Shadows.’
‘Looking for what?’
‘Some provision, any provision, for a High Priest of Shadow having two wives.’
‘Is there one?’
‘How should I know?’
‘Well,’ Cotillion said, ‘didn’t you write it?’
Shadowthrone shifted about ‘I was busy.’
‘So who did?’
Shadowthrone would not answer.
Cotillion’s brows rose. ‘Not Pust! The Book of Shadows, where he’s proclaimed the Magus of High House Shadow?’
‘It’s called delegation.’ Shadowthrone snapped.
‘It’s called idiocy.’
‘Well hee hee I dare say he’ll find what he’s looking for, won’t he.’
‘Aye, with the ink still wet.’

“We humans do not understand compassion. In each moment of our lives, we betray it. Aye, we know of its worth, yet in knowing we then attach to it a value, we guard the giving of it, believing it must be earned, T’lan Imass. Compassion is priceless in the truest sense of the wold. It must be given freely. In abundance.”

“Armour can hide anything until the moment it falls away.  Even a child.  Especially a child.”

“Courting is the art of growing like mould on the one you want.”

Cheers!!

My Microteaching Experience @ NTU

Four classroom sessions and 3 assignments later, the big day finally arrived, 10 minutes of pure terror! Behold, microteaching is out to get ya! Oh well, on second thoughts it wasn’t so bad, but many of us including yours truly here, had blown it way out of proportion brooding about the gazillion ways you could fail the damn thing. My session was scheduled in the afternoon, I gathered my stuff and made my way to the learning studio. I was quite well prepared, at least that’s what I thought when I walked into the room brimming with ill-deserved confidence. So there were about 30 of us in there, the facilitators  arrived and started calling out names, 6 per group. My group consisted of 4 guys and a girl, I only knew the girl, who had attended the previous sessions in the same cohort as me. We were ushered into a tutorial room by our facilitator, Mr. Murray Bourne an Australian gentleman (I only found out his name later). He then asked us all to gather at one of the tables for the preliminary instructions. It was at this point that I noticed none of us were actually speaking or even smiling for the matter. In my case, I was quite nervous about the time limit of 10 mins, I am the type who can get quite carried away when explaining stuff to people, and was well aware that finishing on time would be quite the problem.

Our facilitator was quite friendly, he asked us to take a few deep breaths, even cracked a couple of jokes to put us all at ease. The instructions were mainly about feedback we would be giving each other during the course of the session, and on a variety of aspects which you’ll learn about during the classroom sessions. Some of the important ones included time management, meeting learning outcomes, quality of slides and clarity of speech. There would be one ring of a bell at 9 mins, two rings at 10, three at 11 and he also gave us the impression that if we didn’t stop by then, there would be no more rings, but the bell flying “whoosh” onto us along the lines of a missile STRIKE! Well, I’ve had many things thrown at me during my little life, and I certainly didn’t want a bell to make that list. He then asked us who wanted to go first, and a couple of seconds later I thought I saw my hand go up. I’d wanted to get this thing out of the way so badly for the last couple of weeks and there you go, “tada!”, I was the opening batsman. In hindsight, I would recommend going second or third, as some obvious mistakes could be avoided such as positioning yourself at the right spot etc., All of us were then asked to sit at different tables covering the entire room to simulate a class full of students.

My topic was a simple one, I’d planned to teach heat transfer and its management for industrial applications. The plan was to start off with a quick recall activity, a couple of questions to gauge prior understanding next, slide show, a collaborative activity involving a case study and finally finish with a brief summary. I think I started off well, unfortunately I wasn’t carrying a pointer so I had to move to the computer each time I needed to change slides. I would highly recommend carrying one, as this enables you to move around the class freely. I got a couple of blank looks when I was explaining the convection bit, and this of course prompted me to spend some extra time there. I was nearly 6 minutes down, when I reached the activity bit and so was hard-pressed for time in discussing questions. I had to rush through my summary and overshot the time limit by about 15 seconds. Despite a practice session the previous evening, I thought I could still do with an extra minute, which I presume will be the case for many of us. We gathered at the central table again  to receive our feedback as soon as our teaching was done. Our facilitator had informed us beforehand that we were only to receive comments and suggestions, and no retorts were to expected from us in our defence.

Most of my group mentioned that my teaching was clear and easy to follow, the recall activity also worked to some extent in helping them remember what they had learnt in school. They told me that I’d given them ample time to answer the questions posed, but then again was only able to partially achieve the third learning outcome. The feedback had to include one plus point and 2 suggestions from each of us, Mr. Murray jumped in whenever necessary to fine-tune the suggestions. The rest of the group followed suit, some of them started off quite well, but like me, ended up overshooting on the time. All of us made mistakes and this brings me to a few key suggestions which I believe could really help you during the session.

  • Do NOT show your bum to the students when presenting, yours truly was one of the first culprits to be caught doing this.
  • Carry a pointer, make eye contact with everyone, do not talk too fast especially when you are explaining  the main concepts.
  • Don’t dwell too much on the questions, and don’t say no outright even if the student gives the wrong answer.
  • Pick a topic which is simple, but link this to a first year undergraduate course. One of us did Rayleigh scattering of light, which is a good topic to know about, but not exactly relevant for an engineer.
  • Stick to a white background for your slides, and work on the contrast and fonts to make them visible from a distance.
  • Give the students sufficient time to solve the activity before jumping in to help them, and spend more time on getting them to work together (splitting them into 2 groups is a good idea).
  • Also be very careful when adding equations, as this could take up more time and is generally difficult to master in a few minutes.
  • Keep the presentation to about 10 slides, and don’t fill them with too much detail.
  • Finally as far as the learning outcomes are concerned, it would be better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way round. Also remember guys, that finishing on time is vital, you could use a stopwatch or something to keep track as you teach.

The whole session lasted about 3 hours, luckily there were no technical glitches and all of us got started as soon as our turns arrived. Our facilitator informed us that we would receive our results via email, it was only the next afternoon that I received one mentioning I’d passed. I heaved a big sigh of relief; although the whole thing was very informative and stuff, I really don’t think I’d want give it another go!

Microteaching session_Vivek

Case Study_Microteaching

 Cheers

Musings on a Friday

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I am seated at a desk in Minerva, one of the few reading rooms at NTU open for most part of the day. It’s a regular Friday evening, few fellow inhabitants in attendance, tapping away into keyboards or staring at monitors. There is a loud cheering noise in the background, which I presume is being echoed in most parts of the campus thanks to the freshman orientation camps. Boisterous groups of freshmen rove about the campus, lending their participation into a multitude of activities, all aimed at bonding within the cohort.

A little more than 2 years have passed since I arrived in Singapore, 2 years and 15 days to be precise. I’ve been wondering of late, about my time here, especially the last year leading up to my present situation. It’s funny, how in hindsight, circumstances can look silly, even a touch comic. It all began when I was completing my Master’s thesis, roughly about the same time last year. Every day, I’d go the CAE lab trying to figure out the intricacies of performing a computer aided simulation, on a piezoelectric cantilever. Most of the time, I’d have no clue what I was doing, let alone know what I wanted to do in the first place. The analysis would for mostly result in these bizarre curves, many orders of magnitude from the expected results. Evenings would arrive, always leaving me at a stage slightly worse off than where I’d started. Simulation, if it has taught me anything, is that patience is indeed a virtue (gritting my teeth)!!

Next, there was the predicament connected with job applications. Hours spent filling up countless forms, attaching CVs and waiting for interview calls which of course, never came. Singapore is an expensive city to live in, not exactly ideal for an unemployed mechanical engineer with dwindling finances. The oil and gas industry had hit rock bottom; the manufacturing sector wasn’t looking good either. Adding on to this were the strict laws enforced by the government on the employers, concerning the ratio of locals to foreigners amongst the employees. None of my applications ever yielded any result. For the record, I didn’t even land a single interview call. My confidence level had plummeted to an all-time low; I was quickly running out of cash. Having worked for a few years previously, I was averse to asking my parents for finances. It was around this point I realized I needed some kind of part time employment to sustain myself. I tried  various jobs ranging from e-commerce to selling magnetic mattresses. I must confess I almost laughed at my pathetic situation. Here I was, a graduate mechanical engineer with prior work experience in a world-renowned organization, selling mattresses for a living. My mum and I made light of this, comparing my situation to that faced by a character in an old Malayalam film “T.P Balagopalan MA”. The role enacted by none other than Mohanlal, depicts the plight of a middle-class postgraduate reduced to selling wallpapers, thanks to the near impossibility of finding a better job at the time. It didn’t take me very long to realize I was a hopeless salesman. It was after I completed my thesis I finally found a job more suited to my taste, as a science tutor at a private organisation, catering to students of international schools.

Things were looking slightly better, and it suddenly hit me that I hadn’t been paying much attention to my significant other. We’d drifted apart the last couple of weeks and this gap had festered getting worse as days passed. It has always a flaw of mine, that I turn cold and retreat into my shell when assailed by uncertainty. My taciturnity, frostiness and sombre moods had driven her away, leaving our relationship in shambles. The end inexorably arrived and we parted ways. The next few months were quite the emotional roller-coaster, the time which I presume most lovers go through; the aftermath of a shattered relationship. The phase of should haves and could haves; the permutations and the combinations of decisions which might have changed things for the better; the phase of self-reproach, knowing there is nothing you can do, and yet attempting to, making things all the worse. Now, this brings me to one of Steven’s quotes, one which really struck me at the time:

“I love you still, but with your death I succumbed to a kind of infatuation. I convinced myself that what you and I had, so very briefly, was of far vaster and deeper import than it truly was. Of all the weapons we chose to turn upon ourselves, guilt is the sharpest, Silverfox. It can carve one’s own past into unrecognizable shapes, false memories leading to beliefs that sow all kinds of obsessions.”
 Steven Erikson, Memories of Ice

I won’t say I’ve gotten over it all, those myriad memories of us together, which for some reason appear so much sweeter in retrospect. But yes, there is some kind of closure there now, a full stop which comes at a point you realize you have a choice; you either move on, or you remain a chronically grieving fool, forever wallowing in the misery of unrequited love.

Okay, now before this starts sounding like a column dedicated to agony aunt, I must say things did get better eventually. Well, not quite how I’d wanted them to turn out, but that’s life for you, doling out lessons when you least expect them.  These phases I went through, I am quite sure, are in no way unique or exclusive to me. Of course, it’s a horrid place to be in, but nothing like a few lessons from the University of hard knocks to anneal you to the vagaries of life, eh? Selling mattresses was a big deal? This friend of mine used to shovel snow in the blistering cold to earn his cash while he was studying.

I will not say the last year has left me any wiser, but it sure has shown me how foolish and short-sighted I can be most of the time. It has also shown me how valuable family and friends are, when trying to sail your way through difficult circumstances. Most importantly, it has given me a glimpse of how unpredictable and transient, life really is, which brings me to yet another quote, this time by the immortal Maugham.

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy.”

W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge

Time really does heal all wounds, which reminds me that it’s time I left! Enough for a Friday, eh? Cheers!

 

Mount Kinabalu via Ferrata – Low’s Peak Circuit

After the excitement of climbing Mount Batur had died down, I got the feeling that I needed to do something slightly more daunting, both physically and mentally. The past couple of months at work had been really hectic as well as monotonous. An adrenaline rush was badly needed. It was during one such day that I googled up the highest peaks in South-East Asia and stumbled across Mount Kinabalu, which stood just above 4000 m. That wasn’t too much, no? I mean it’s only half of Everest for God’s sake! The mountain is located in Sabah, on the island of Borneo, a mere 2 hours by flight from Singapore. I already happened to possess a Malaysian Visa, which of course worked in favour of my sudden whim of choosing this particular mountain to climb.

Further research showed me that the mountain also had a “via ferrata” option during the descent. For those of you who aren’t aware of the term, it refers to a steel cable which runs along the route and is fixed to the rock face at regular intervals. Using a kit, the climbers can secure themselves to the cable, limiting a fall. In addition to this, there are other climbing aids such as iron rungs and pedals attached to the rock face, which the climber can make use of, for both ascent as well as descent. Luckily, I discovered that the Kinabalu ferrata option, graded “French AD” was apt for beginners, who wanted to have a taste of climbing the vertical face of a mountain. This being said, via ferrata is generally considered quite intimidating for those with a fear of heights, to which category I must confess I belong (gulp!).

Well, there were only a few agencies offering climb packages to said mountain, ranging from 2 days to 5 days, the popular ones being Amazing Borneo, Mount Kinabalu packages and Mountain Torq. The prices were all similar and I decided to go with Mountain Torq as they were the official Ferrata organizers. It was quite expensive as compared to the Batur climb, the 2D1N option costing about 710 SGD. I’d already made up my mind on going ahead, irrespective of the cost, as the ferrata option had piqued my curiosity. The next thing on my list was to find a climbing partner and considering the fact that via ferrata was on the cards, the choice had to be a well-thought one. There was only one friend among my group, who I knew would even consider it. K was initially skeptical when I asked him to join me, as he too was surprised about the exorbitant cost. In the end, he capitulated, being the adventurer he is, as the ferrata option charmed him as well, as it had done me. We booked the 2D1N package, as it was the most reasonable of the lot from the point of view of cost. We were looking at a budget of roughly about 1000 SGD including the climb package, the stay in Kota Kinabalu, flight tickets and the necessary gear. “Daylight robbery!”, we told each other. We also booked a room with Hotel Victoria in Kota Kinabalu via Airbnb, as the climb package included both pick up and drop off to any hotel in the city. The mountain is located roughly about 2 hours drive from the city.

Below link would give you a list of things necessary during the trek (the bare minimum), as well as the itinerary sent by Mountain Torq, which I presume is common for all climbers opting for the 2D1N option irrespective of the agency involved.

Low’s peak circuit (LPC)

As far as preparation was concerned, all we had was our daily game of badminton, which in hindsight, was actually quite helpful at least in my case.

We flew down to Kota Kinabalu on the 23rd June, took a cab to our hotel which was located in the city center. We decided to crash early as we would hardly be getting any sleep the next night. We were up and ready at the lobby by 6:30 am and so was our pick up. We then made our way to the Kinabalu park headquarters arriving there about 8:30 am. The registration was both smooth and quick as we had already made the payments online. We were given our tags, a packed lunch and then introduced to our guide Doina, a middle-aged lady who had been climbing the mountain for several years. I couldn’t help but notice the huge calf muscles on all the guides assembled there, including Doina. I almost felt embarrassed, when I looked at my own chicken like legs.

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We were then dropped off at Timpohon gate, where we were to begin our climb. We also rented a walking stick each based on the advice of our guide, as it would help remove some of the stress on our knees during the climb. A lot of the day’s climbers had already assembled there and were looking at the maps of the route and were being briefed by their respective guides. We looked expectantly at ours! Well, Doina clearly didn’t think much of these briefings and to our surprise was already on the trail, beckoning at us to get a move on. Well, that was the beginning of the several instances of catching each other’s eye over the course of the trek, for  K and me. We followed her like mute lambs to the slaughter, amused at the fact that we were climbing one of the biggest mountains in South-East Asia hardly knowing what to expect.

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The climb to the base camp was fairly easy as well as undemanding. It was a set path, and all one needed to do was to stick to it. The initial bit consisted mainly of steps carved onto the path which roughly took us about 4 hours, the final part involved clambering over rocks, which we did in about an hour.

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Fortunately for us, the weather was very clear and the temperature was also quite cool. There were many rest shelters along the way. At about 12 pm we reached one of these shelters when Doina cried out the words “layang layang”. We understood that we were to stop here for lunch, we set about opening our packed lunches supplied by Mountain Torq. There was a cheese sandwich, an egg, an orange and a piece of fried chicken all of which were in a state of deep freeze, thanks to the low temperature. We finished our meal chasing away hungry squirrels and then resumed our climb to the base camp. On the way, we ran into a couple of Indian ladies who had flown down from Hong Kong.  I was quite impressed by these energetic and adventurous women, both of them mothers. Here they were, climbing the biggest mountain in Malaysia just for the fun of it and making it look so easy at the same time. We introduced ourselves, then made our way together to Pendant hut located at the base camp (approximately 3200 m), arriving there about 2 pm and checked in to our room. It was a dorm, all the four of us i.e. Bhakti, Swati, K and I were assigned the same room along with a few Japanese. Doina headed off informing us that she would meet us at the entrance the next day, for the ascent to the summit.

So the base camp had quite a few buildings, all the people doing Ferrata were assigned to Pendant hut as the training for the same was to be conducted here. The dorm was quite clean and tidy. There were bunk beds with sleeping bags and since we were one of the first few to arrive, we ended up getting our choice selection of them. We were each given a pair of crocs to wear in the room. The toilets and bathrooms were also quite decent, and I managed a quick shower. Since we had a lot of time on our hands, we made coffee, chatted and played Uno. It was good fun talking to Bhakti and Swati. Both of them had travelled extensively, and had a lot of things to narrate about the places they’d visited.

The ferrata trainers arrived by 4:30 pm, and all of us gathered in the lobby for our training. They briefed us on our schedule for the next day, and also showed us how to wear our chastity belts (yes, that’s what they were called!) for the “via ferrata” route, along with the operation of the primary and secondary safety harnesses. It was fairly straightforward and user-friendly. The guy also regaled us with some colorful accounts on the best and worst times on the 2 ferrata routes. We discovered that there were only five climbers who had signed up for the Low’s Peak circuit (LPC), the Japanese trio who were in our dorm, K and yours truly. The LPC route is about 1.2 km long with a vertical height traverse of 365m and holds the Guinness record for the world’s highest via ferrata. The rest of them were doing the Walk the Torq (WTT) route having a much shorter length of about 400m. The trainer also mentioned that both the summit trail as well as the ferrata would be cancelled in case of rain/bad weather. All of us prayed that the weather would hold, as it would be a shame to have come all this way and then head back just because of foul weather. The training lasted for an hour and a half, we then decided to head down to Laban Rata rest house for dinner as we had to wake up early the next day. It was a buffet spread, there were a good variety of dishes including appetizer, main course and dessert. We decided not to stuff ourselves for obvious reasons. The restaurant was located on the side of the hill , and gave us some stunning views of the surrounding landscape. It was getting colder by the minute and my legs were already shaking, thanks to my strutting around in a pair of shorts like a total idiot. We returned to Pendant hut, as it was getting late and we needed to crash early. The trek to the summit would commence at 2:30 am the next morning. I tucked myself into my sleeping bed, hoping for good weather the next day. Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep very well, as I was quite excited about the climb and couldn’t wait to get started. I noticed I was breathing more rapidly than usual, perhaps it was to do with the altitude.

All of us were up about 2 am and gathered at the lobby fully attired, for an early breakfast. There was bread and butter along with some coffee. I didn’t eat much as I was still full from last night’s dinner. We then began the climb along with our respective guides, as we had to be at the peak before sunrise. The initial part again consisted of stairs, carved onto the mountain side like the previous day. The only difference was that this time the gradient was much steeper and the climb more tiring. Luckily, we had railings to hold on to and we made our way at a steady pace. We didn’t take many breaks as it was really cold and we’d start shivering if we stayed at one point for too long. We also had to report on time for the ferrata part after completing the summit trail or they’d start without us. Bhakti, K and I reached the summit checkpoint in about 2 hours where we had to submit our IDs for verification. It was after this point that the trek got quite demanding, as there were some really steep sections. We had to haul ourselves up using a rope for most of the way. Our headlamps came in really handy as it left both our hands free, to hold on to the rope. Since it was dark, we luckily couldn’t pay much attention to how steep it actually was. We were all going in a line and overtaking was out of the question.

There were distance markers every 500 m, and I must admit that I began to doubt their veracity, as it felt like we’d walked 2 km for every half a km the markers claimed. Bhakti, K and I trudged along looking at the lights in the distance. It was at these points that I realized how important it is to have friends along during a climb. K and I were pulling each other’s leg the whole time, wondering if we would ever make it to the bloody peak. Doina, as usual refused to make any comment, giving us vague answers about how far we had to go. It was only then Bhakti realized, that the little lady following us was in fact our guide.

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After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the summit i.e. Low’s Peak around 6 am. It was a clear morning, and we discovered, to our wonder, that we stood way above the clouds. All of us were filled with a strong sense of accomplishment, especially in my case as it was the first time I’d climbed 4000 m and above. The view as on any mountain top was stunning, both serene as well as tranquil. There was a board mentioning the height of the peak, people were queuing up here to take snapshots and selfies. We clicked a few pics, and then gave our tired bodies some badly needed rest.

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Swati arrived soon after, with her guide and joined us. I felt drained, and was already beginning to dread the descent. We then had to quickly say our goodbyes, as K and I had to report for the LPC. I parted a little sooner, as I couldn’t take the low temperature and made my way back to the LPC start point. It was still very cold, and I had to keep prancing around to keep my body warm. There was hardly any cover and I wished I’d worn thermals.

The “via Ferrata” guides arrived around 7 am with the equipment and all of us had to gear up. So there were to be two teams- K and me along with a guide and the Japanese trio with theirs. Yours truly was to lead, followed by K, our guide and the other team. Once our safety harnesses were in place, Henry, our guide told me to head on to the steel rope. I had to attach the harness to the rope and then make my way down holding on to it. Once I was done, he then casually asked me to keep moving. I couldn’t see the next clamp and oh dearie me! I realized that the second clamp was on the vertical face of the mountain. My legs had already begun to shake. Well, that was expected wasn’t it! Can’t really blame the damn legs! Bloody heights! I didn’t really have the time to curse myself further, as everyone else was waiting for me to move. It didn’t really feel appropriate to back out then, not when I was captain, leading my motley team! Swearing at myself and my sudden mountain climbing fancies, I made my way down.

There were pedals and steel rungs attached to the rock face, which were supposed to help us move along. The bloody pedals were really small, and once you had a foot on each, it was really difficult to manoeuvre  to the next one. At certain key points, there were no pedals, and you had to make use of the rock face, trusting in your shoes not to slip. I heaved a sigh of relief every time I came across rungs, instead of pedals. The first ten minutes were really scary, and I was holding on to the rope for dear life making my way very slowly, almost at right angles to the mountain. I told myself that all I needed to do was keep moving steadily, and I’d make it down without shitting my pants. It was at this point, that I started paying attention to the others and I saw both K and Henry watching me with amused expressions. I also became conscious of the fact that I was in reality, clinging on to the rock like some petrified lizard. I was hardly moving at all! And the logical consequence – “Stifled laughter!” Well, that decided it! I was supposed to be a bloody son of the hills. I would not have these guys laughing at my expense, oh no! Not here, not when climbing the damned mountain was my idea in the first place. I started moving faster and with every step, got a little more comfortable. We picked up our pace , Henry  even went on to mention that we were doing good time. I couldn’t help but think back to the briefing, the previous day, when the trainer had mentioned the worst time on the LPC, a whopping 13 hours. And no, I had no intention of competing with that!

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Well, all that aside, I have to mention at this point, the views from the cliff face were in fact quite stunning. We could see all the way down to Pendant hut, and for miles across. We could even spot the blue of the sea in the far horizon. Henry told us that he’d been doing this route for the past 7 years, and he loved every moment of it. It was quiet, picturesque and serene. He also mentioned that he could do the whole route in about 30 minutes, tops. I didn’t doubt him, as I had seen him making his way down behind K, whistling away to glory, like he was out on some evening stroll. Soon, we finished the first half of the route and got some rest, munching on the energy bars we had brought along. K and I introduced ourselves to our Japanese counterparts. They were so much older than us and we were quite amazed, that they’d decided to take on something so physically challenging, at their age. One lady had even climbed Mt Fuji the previous week, just as a preparatory trek prior to Kinabalu. And to think we’d thought ourselves crazy!

The next bit involved a quick hike through some dense jungle. I was talking to Henry throughout the trail, and he told me about some of the recent accidents, especially the earthquake in 2015, in which many students from Singapore had died during the climb. It was quite a scary thought, as we had just passed all those spots a few hours ago. We were lucky to be blessed with such good weather, throughout the course of our trek.

The final part of the LPC involved another ascent, again making use of the rope. All of us were physically drained by then,and made very slow progress. We finally completed the LPC in roughly 3 hours, which according to our guides was very good time. I must say that the both of them were quite good at their jobs, very cheerful and supportive throughout the route. We thanked them and then made our way back to Pendant hut for another much-needed breakfast and some rest. It had begun to drizzle and the place was quite deserted when we reached. We found out that only very few had completed the WTT route, and the majority had opted out due to exhaustion. I was quite thrilled and proud about the fact, that none of us from LPC had played truant at the last-minute.

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We began our descent along with Doina at about 1:45 pm, and arrived at Timpohon gate by 5 pm. It was getting dark, and we ran most of the way down, as we wanted to arrive at the gate before the office closed. Our pick up was waiting at the park headquarters, and the driver handed us our colorful certificates, one for the summit climb and one for via ferrata. We said our goodbyes to Doina, and settled in our cab exhausted, every muscle in our body aching. My shoes had rubbed off onto the sides of my leg, and I had to take them off for the drive. It was raining for most part of the journey. We arrived at the hotel in a couple of hours, cursing every stair on the way to our room. I jumped into the bathroom, throwing away my stinking, sweat soaked clothes and had a hot shower. When the both of us were done, we walked to the nearest Pizza hut, dragging our legs like a pair of refugees, who’d just walked their way out of a desert. We had ourselves a big meal, returned to our room, switched on the aircon and crashed. I helped myself to a large share of K’s Tiger balm which relieved some of the pain. I went to sleep expecting to be next to incapacitated the next day, but it didn’t turn out to be so bad. Yes, our bodies were aching in all possible locations and yes, we were climbing stairs like a pair of old men, clinging onto the banister, but we could both move and that was what mattered. We returned the same day, on the 26th, and reached Singapore at about 5 pm.

Some afterthoughts and advice!

The trek is a doable one (nothing technical), provided the climber has a reasonable level of fitness. In case you’re interested in ferrata, I would advise going for the WTT option as the LPC gets quite repetitive, after a point of time. It is also quite exhausting to do the summit trail, LPC and the descent to Timpohon gate, all on the same day. The WTT lets you experience the same things, without draining you as much as the LPC does. Also, do not book your flights on the same night, as it gets pretty late by the time you reach Kota Kinabalu. Do carry all the things mentioned on the list for the trip. And most importantly, choose a fun climbing partner, not someone you’d have to lug along. Trust me, a grumbling sack of potatoes isn’t exactly something you’d want with you, especially when you’re climbing a mountain this size!

All in all, it was an exhilarating experience. One, I am sure to keep recounting every now and then. It was great fun trekking with you K! Next stop, Kilimanjaro for sure! hehe 😉 It was also nice meeting you Bhakti and Swati, fellow mountaineers like you mentioned!

Cheers!

Destination Singapore!

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Merlion at Sentosa

After a 3 year stint at Volvo Trucks, Bangalore, providence has landed me in Singapore, on the 14th of July, for a one year Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at NTU. I was accompanied by my father, who had decided to make this his first post retirement trip. I was quite excited as this was my first international trip, but at the same time, was extremely tired as I’d been working till the 11th. The last couple of days had just zoomed away what with all the packing and last-minute purchasing. Our flight was from Chennai and we took a train from Bangalore on the morning of the 13th. We reached Chennai early in the evening and then boarded the flight at 21:45. Fortunately, everything went smoothly and there were no hassles during the journey.

We arrived at Changi Airport at half past five and a took a cab to a relative’s(Amara aunty) place. She stays at Taman Jurong, about 45 km from the airport. We were there in next to no time as there was absolutely no traffic and were greeted by both her and her son. They were up early that day, watching the finals of the FIFA World cup. We were ushered into our room and both me and my dad were out like lights, exhausted after the long journey.

The next couple of days were just amazing.  Singapore is probably the cleanest and most organized city in the world. Coming from Bangalore, I could actually feel how far behind we  were in terms of planning. The first one hour of traveling we spent marveling at each and every tiny aspect which made the city so efficient and beautiful. It’s quite an eyeful to one who has lived in the chaos of Indian cities. Also, there was the culture shock of seeing people from so many ethnic backgrounds around. I really must confess that I did a lot of staring that day 🙂 .

We visited NTU in the morning and, woah!, it was the most massive campus I’d ever seen in my life, spread around 500 acres, which is about 8 times the size of R.V College. It was mind-blowing, we actually got lost inside the university the very first day. It was the first time I was getting a feel of a full-scale international university, and, boy oh boy, was it awesome!

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The first thing I did was to collect the key to my room in the hostel, an electronic one. To cut down expenses I had chosen a double room which I would be sharing with another student. The room was very well planned and had all the furniture I needed along with a bed as shown below:

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I also met Sankalp a classmate of mine from RV who will be staying in the same hostel a level below ours. He was with us at Volvo for a year and now will be studying the same course as me here at NTU. Over the next few days we completed all the joining formalities like registration, opening a bank account, medical test, tuition fee loan application and exploring the campus. Also we had to register for the various orientation activities organized by the Graduate Student Council, the elected representative body of graduate students at NTU. I also purchased a local SIM and an EZ-link card which is required for traveling by MRT as well as bus. The MRT system is just fantastic in Singapore and can get you to almost all locations in the city including the airport. Travel is very cheap this way and just about 100SGD is required per person for visiting all the must see locations in the city/country.

The one thing which really stands out in Singapore is the variety offered when it comes to food. You can find Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian, Western, Malay eateries in almost every mall, each of these again serving multifarious dishes. The prices are also quite reasonable ranging from 3 to 6 SGD for a full meal. The past 10 days I must say have been a gastronomical delight for me. Amara aunty, who we were staying with, added to this experience by churning out delectable dishes in every meal she cooked for us. All in all, I should confess that our tummies must have had a really hard time digesting all the stuff that kept going in at regular intervals.

I joined my dad in touring the city once I completed all my joining formalities. We visited Sentosa, Marina Bay, Singapore zoo, Little India, China town and also traveled extensively within the city. I will refrain from giving detailed descriptions of all these places as I feel the reader ought to visit and discover these places in person.

My dad returned to India on the 23rd and I moved into my room in the hostel the next day. Here, I will begin my journey as a student once again after working for 3 years now. I am looking forward to my time here and am hoping to meet a lot of interesting people. Also at the same time I will do my best not to let down those numerous friends of mine who have specifically asked me to have fun during my stay here 🙂 . Let me leave you now with one of my favorite quotes by Thoreau.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

 

An Interesting Article on Introverts by Carl King

10 Myths About Introverts

I must say it’s quite well put. I could even find myself nodding my head when reading a few of them. Read on.

Myth #1 – Introverts don’t like to talk.
This is not true. Introverts just don’t talk unless they have something to say. They hate small talk. Get an introvert talking about something they are interested in, and they won’t shut up for days.

Myth #2 – Introverts are shy.
Shyness has nothing to do with being an Introvert. Introverts are not necessarily afraid of people. What they need is a reason to interact. They don’t interact for the sake of interacting. If you want to talk to an Introvert, just start talking. Don’t worry about being polite.

Myth #3 – Introverts are rude.
Introverts often don’t see a reason for beating around the bush with social pleasantries. They want everyone to just be real and honest. Unfortunately, this is not acceptable in most settings, so Introverts can feel a lot of pressure to fit in, which they find exhausting.

Myth #4 – Introverts don’t like people.
On the contrary, Introverts intensely value the few friends they have. They can count their close friends on one hand. If you are lucky enough for an introvert to consider you a friend, you probably have a loyal ally for life. Once you have earned their respect as being a person of substance, you’re in.

Myth #5 – Introverts don’t like to go out in public.
Nonsense. Introverts just don’t like to go out in public FOR AS LONG. They also like to avoid the complications that are involved in public activities. They take in data and experiences very quickly, and as a result, don’t need to be there for long to “get it.” They’re ready to go home, recharge, and process it all. In fact, recharging is absolutely crucial for Introverts.

Myth #6 – Introverts always want to be alone.
Introverts are perfectly comfortable with their own thoughts. They think a lot. They daydream. They like to have problems to work on, puzzles to solve. But they can also get incredibly lonely if they don’t have anyone to share their discoveries with. They crave an authentic and sincere connection with ONE PERSON at a time.

Myth #7 – Introverts are weird.
Introverts are often individualists. They don’t follow the crowd. They’d prefer to be valued for their novel ways of living. They think for themselves and because of that, they often challenge the norm. They don’t make most decisions based on what is popular or trendy.

Myth #8 – Introverts are aloof nerds.
Introverts are people who primarily look inward, paying close attention to their thoughts and emotions. It’s not that they are incapable of paying attention to what is going on around them, it’s just that their inner world is much more stimulating and rewarding to them.

Myth #9 – Introverts don’t know how to relax and have fun.
Introverts typically relax at home or in nature, not in busy public places. Introverts are not thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies. If there is too much talking and noise going on, they shut down. Their brains are too sensitive to the neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Introverts and Extroverts have different dominant neuro-pathways. Just look it up.

Myth #10 – Introverts can fix themselves and become Extroverts.
A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers. That being said, there are still plenty of techniques an Extrovert can learn in order to interact with Introverts. (Yes, I reversed these two terms on purpose to show you how biased our society is.) Introverts cannot “fix themselves” and deserve respect for their natural temperament and contributions to the human race. In fact, one study (Silverman, 1986) showed that the percentage of Introverts increases with IQ.

Mulling things over: A job and a life!

Sometimes when I look back at the life I’ve made for myself, I feel a tinge of both sadness and frustration. This feeling reaches its peak when I question myself about all the decisions I’ve taken which in turn have led to my present life. To be more specific, my current profession! If you look at it from an outsider’s perspective it’s not so bad, an engineer working at a global organization on a core job with a decent pay. The only glitch in this equation is that I do my job because I am trained to do it and not because I love it. As the saying goes, “Life is always much more successfully looked at from a single window”. To see reality as it is, you need to step outside the world of the person in question and then look at it in its entirety. This problem which keeps tormenting me now and again is one I am quite sure, faced by a lot of people today.

Most Indian kids, at least the ones in my world are brought up and educated in a manner so as to land a secure job. It does not matter whether you like what you are doing. All that counts is that you have a respectable, well-paying and stable job. We are conditioned by society from a very small age to find happiness in what we do, rather than pursuing something which we would actually love doing. In fact, we are so busy caught up in executing and following up on this rat race that we never find the time to ask ourselves what we truly want. We are even programmed so as not to let our minds wander along such directions, as they are perceived to be dangerous by our parents/society.

There are so many kids out there who discover their true calling but end up doing something completely different thanks to their parents and the society. For instance consider the case of this friend of mine. He was a brilliant writer with exceptional general knowledge and was considering journalism as a profession. He wrote his parents telling them about his decision only to get a sixteen page letter convincing him otherwise. He capitulated owing to the pressure and ended up doing engineering like the rest of us. Then again, we can’t completely point fingers at our parents or their generation as the situation in their case was very different. We have the luxury of choosing a job now whereas, during their time, landing a job itself was a lifetime achievement. They probably have this in mind when they trace the course of their child’s future.

Moving on, my own case turned out to be slightly better compared to my friend , for I never did find out what I truly wanted to do with life. Yes, there were the few times when I questioned myself about what I’d like to do and yes, I did come up with some fantastic answers too, after my so-called deliberations. There was the time that I got inspired listening to my English teacher and I wanted to take up Arts. Also there was the time when I wanted to do psychology and philosophy thanks to my stay with the monks during college. I even wanted to become an officer in the navy at a certain point. Then there is the ridiculous dream of doing some menial job in a beautiful country, a thought which creeps into my mind even now. Most of these feelings turned out to be temporary, playing their part until they fizzled out, leaving me in a state of limbo. The persistent ones, I pursued only to find out that they were no better than the former.

It’s been a couple of years now, working as an engineer and trying to find some sort of happiness doing it. At the same time I’ve been trying my hand at different stuff, dabbling at this and that. Who knows, one day I might just stumble across something I like doing. This blog here, is one such activity. It’s such a rewarding experience to be a writer, isn’t it? I mean when the blues hit me I can just immerse myself in writing and for that moment, completely forget everything else. So far so good! 🙂